On a Friday in early October 2017 ... 58 immigrants from 24 countries
across the globe sat together in anticipation at the U.S. District
Courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
It was naturalization day.
Fifty-eight individual, unique journeys all led to a singular
moment; they would all raise their right hands and take the Oath of
Sitting in the desired “first chair” was
a young man whose journey to U.S. citizenship looked much different
than that of his 57 peers. Pfc. Fortytwo Chotper, originally from
Sudan, came to America from a refugee camp in Kenya, leaving behind
a dozen siblings, his mother, and everything he had ever known.
The process of coming to America as a refugee took Chotper seven
years. During that time, he used any money he could earn to purchase
television minutes and learn English – his third language – from
From the moment he stepped on Iowa soil,
his new home, he knew he wanted to do something few others do; he
wanted to join the U.S. military.
“I wasn’t joining to get
citizenship,” Chotper said. “I was just doing it to give thanks to
the United States for bringing me here from the refugee camp.”
October 6, 2017 - Pfc. Fortytwo Chotper, a unit supply specialist
with the 1168th Transportation Company, Iowa Army National Guard
based in Perry, Iowa, earned his U.S. citizenship during a ceremony
at the U.S. District Court of Southern Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa.
Chotper, originally from Sudan, came to America from a refugee camp
in Kenya and was eligible for accelerated citizenship through his
service in the Iowa Army National Guard. (U.S. Army photos by National Guard
Staff Sgt. Christie Smith)
With help from Brian and Samantha McClain, an Iowa couple who
first met Chotper through the college bookstore where Samantha
works, Chotper got in touch with an Iowa Army National Guard
“He had always since we met him ... talked about joining the
military,” Brian said.
“He said he wanted to do something
that most Americans weren’t willing to do, because he was so
grateful that he had the opportunity to come here.”
Chotper learned he could qualify for accelerated citizenship through
his service in the Guard, it was the unexpected icing on the cake.
“It’s a pretty simple process, really,” explained Sean
Sejkora, an administrative specialist with Alpha Company Recruit
Sustainment Program (RSP) at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa.
Sejkora’s job is to help incoming Soldiers with all their
administrative requirements before leaving for basic training. In
his three years on the job, he’s helped nearly 20 Soldiers apply for
“It’s like a lengthy job
application,” Sejkora said of the 20-page application form.
In order to apply for accelerated citizenship, Sejkora said Soldiers
must have a passport, a green card (permanent residency document), a
photo for the naturalization certificate, and two forms – the N400,
a universal form for all citizenship applicants, and the N426, a
military certification for the accelerated process.
process] is accelerated, it’s free and we help them do everything
they need to do,” Sejkora said.
Without military membership
and support, the process can take years and cost hundreds of
dollars, said Sgt. Maj. Timothy Perkins, the former State Equal
Employment Manager for the Iowa National Guard.
“As a citizen
in general you just kind of take it for granted,” Perkins said. “You
don’t realize [obtaining citizenship] is a hard process and it’s a
Though Perkins now works in the Iowa National
Guard Education Services Office as the Student Loan Repayment
Manager, he said he still advocates for diversity in the Guard.
“If you’ve always been a citizen and you grew up in Iowa…you’re
not used to diversity,” Perkins said. “Not because you don’t care,
you just didn’t have it for the longest time.”
throughout his 31-year career, he has seen the importance of
diversity in the military, and he’s witnessed the Iowa National
Guard embrace the concept.
In order to gain citizenship
through the Guard, Perkins said applicants must first meet all the
same standards as any other Soldier – they have to pass a background
check, meet physical requirements and pass the Armed Services
Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test.
The program for
accelerated citizenship was first started during WWII and reinstated
by former President George W. Bush in 2002. It requires applicants
to be deployable for war, Perkins said. Typically, the citizenship
application process is completed during Basic Combat Training and
Soldiers are awarded their naturalization certificates upon
For Chotper, the process was delayed due to a
paperwork error. Though his citizenship was delayed several months,
it presented a new opportunity for members of the Iowa National
“It’s actually kind of neat for us to go see the
ceremony because normally we don’t get to see the end result while
they’re down at training,” Sejkora said.
On that Friday in
early October, more than 15 members of the Iowa National Guard –
including Chotper’s command team from the 1168th Transportation
Company and Brig. Gen. Randy Greenwood, the Iowa Air National Guard
Chief of Staff – packed the courtroom in their dress uniforms to
witness Chotper’s first moments as a U.S. citizen.
with the “first chair,” Chotper was the first person in the room to
receive his naturalization certificate.
Perkins said he
hoped Chotper and others like him could serve as an example.
“There are people here, as residents, who are contributing, and
then they’re joining the military,” Perkins said. “Only one percent
of our own citizens bother to do that.”
Smiling from ear to
ear and taking photos with all the people who came out to support
him – from his new first sergeant to his battalion commander to the
McClains who welcomed him into their family – Chotper said he felt
like he could fly.
“I feel like I’ve become wholly
American,” Chotper said, his dress uniform adorned with the two
standard ribbons each Soldier earns upon completing entry-level
training. Among his uniform-clad cheering section, he looked every
bit the part.
For Sejkora, who has helped hundreds of
Soldiers navigate the beginning of their careers with the Iowa
National Guard, it was a fulfilling moment to witness the
citizenship process come full circle from the initial application.
“Without exception, I’ve been impressed with every single
one of these permanent residents,” Sejkora said. “I’m very happy to
have helped Chotper on his way, and I’d be happy to help many more.”
By U.S. Army National Guard SSgt. Christie Smith
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